8/23/2017Indiana: Federal Judge Strikes Down Car Seizure Law
US district court judge finds Indiana car seizure law to be unconstitutional.
Police in Indiana may no longer seize automobiles for up to six months without giving the owner an opportunity to contest the seizure. A federal judge on Friday struck down the automobile portion of the state's civil asset forfeiture statute, finding that it violated constitutional due process rights.
US District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson approved the class action lawsuit filed after the September 21, 2016 seizure of the silver Chevrolet Malibu belonging to Leroy Washington. Indianapolis police Officer Christopher Rynard pulled Washington over after allegedly seeing his sedan speeding near a strip mall parking lot. Washington was stopped while carrying $468 in cash and 46 grams of marijuana. He was charged with being a dealer.
Indiana's forfeiture law says cars can be seized without a warrant if they are used "to transport or in any manner facilitate the transportation" of drugs. So the officers at the scene towed away Washington's Malibu. Under state law, the police can keep the vehicle for 180 days, or 90 days if the owner demands it back. There is no provision allowing innocent owners to challenge the taking.
Washington's lawyers filed suit, claiming the law itself violated due process. In an attempt to shut down the class action, the city returned Washington's Malibu. Judge Magnus-Stinson would not drop the case, since she ruled it was now about everyone who had a car confiscated in the state, not any one individual.
"Vehicles are a particularly important form of personal property, and their particular importance derives from their use as a mode of transportation, and, for some, the means to earn a livelihood," she wrote. "It is evident to this court that a three- to six-month deprivation is a lengthy one, and could cause significant hardship to the individual whose vehicle is seized... The private interests at stake are strong, and the statute imposes a heavy burden on those interests."
Under the law, only a police officer's personal belief that probable cause exists is sufficient to justify the seizure. There is no review by a judge or other neutral fact-finder, which the court found particularly troubling since the seizing department profits from the seizures.
"The statute allows law enforcement to seize vehicles of individuals who are entirely unconnected with the conduct that gave rise to the arrest," Judge Magnus-Stinson wrote. "And the statute includes no provisions that would enable those 'innocent owners' to challenge the deprivation during the pendency of proceedings. The risk of erroneous deprivation is particularly high for these individuals."
Because the law did not allow any form of legal challenge or hearing, the court imposed a permanent injunction preventing the seizure law from being applied to automobiles.
A copy of the ruling is available in a 350k PDF file at the source link below.